Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams takes place in Glorious Hills, Mississippi. Alma Winemiller is a minister’s daughter who teaches singing and helps her father with church duties, as her mother is mentally unfit to. She has been in love with her next-door neighbor, John Buchanan Jr., for years, and now he has returned home from Johns Hopkins to practice as a doctor. John, who was raised by his father after his mother died, doesn’t want to be a doctor, but he is following in his father’s footsteps.
While Alma is seeking a spiritual relationship and would love one with John, he is drinking, gambling, and womanizing. He is interested in a physical relationship with Alma, even suggesting they go to a hotel, but she is horrified and rebuffs him. John is also interested in Rosa, the daughter of the local casino owner. When he throws a party to announce their engagement, Alma tries to disrupt it by telling John’s father, Dr. Buchanan. Dr. Buchanan, who was away, returns and, in an altercation with Rosa’s father, is accidentally shot and killed. This causes John to mature and focus on the spiritual instead of the physical, while Alma is realizing she can have both with John. She goes to tell him about her realization, but it is too late; he has become engaged to Nellie, a younger, more conventional girl. Alma, devastated, goes with a passing salesman to the casino, offering herself for a purely physical relationship, in a complete turn from her former self.
Stylistically, Summer and Smoke is Williams’s realistic compromise between the poetic expressionism of The Glass Menagerie and the violent theatricality of A Streetcar Named Desire. Although Summer and Smoke is more conventionally realistic than the other two, it is also his most allegorical statement on the conflict between the soul and the body, between innocence and experience, and between eternity and life—themes taking various forms in all of Williams’s plays. The play is also one of Williams’s three treatments of a character named Alma, the other being an earlier short story, “The Yellow Bird,” and a later play, The Eccentricities of a Nightingale (1964).
Its allegorical realism consists of Williams’s apparently simple and clear portraits of three women, the most important of whom is Alma (her name means “soul”), the daughter of a minister and his increasingly senile wife. Like Laura Wingfield, Alma has a deformity. Hers is of the soul rather than of the body: a chastity of mind that in the early years of her life repressed her sexuality. Slowly it has developed into a revulsion against the physicality of sex and then, later in the play, becomes an unconventional (for her) appetite for the physical aspects of sex.
Rosa Gonzales, on the other hand, the daughter of the owner of Moon Lake Casino (a recurrent symbol of the pleasures of the body in Williams’s plays), is the embodiment of physical (sexual) attraction, the allegorical opposite of Alma’s chastity-dominated soul. A third character, Nellie Ewell, a former piano pupil of Alma, represents a balance between the extremities represented by Alma and Rosa. Eventually, she marries Dr. John Buchanan, the young doctor who has been, at various times, attracted to Alma and Rosa. As a character, Nellie is even less developed than is Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire and is much less interesting dramatically. Even their names suggest their world of respective fates: Alma, purity; Rosa, the glow of life; and John and Nellie, normality.
Alma, the minister’s daughter who has grown up next door to John, and John, the son of a doctor, are representative small-town American characters. John had his taste of an exciting life away in medical school, but Alma retained her small-town interests. Still in love with John, she has remained the product of the polite and conventional southern white, Protestant ethic. Her life consists of participation in local events, such as the town picnics at which she sings.
(The entire section is 1,030 words.)